I know I am probably preaching to the converted and I am sure that most of you will have your saddle checked and fitted on a regular basis. It is something that nearly everyone is aware of to a lesser or greater extent, but have you really taken the time to educate yourself to know what you should be looking at and not to rely completely on having someone in to check for you?
My experiences of saddle fitting in the UK have been far from plain sailing and to be honest more often then not I am left with more questions and concerns then answers and assurances. My first horse came to me with a saddle that had been “made” for him and regularly fitted by a qualified saddler. He was in immense pain through his back and had a huge amount of muscle atrophy over his withers and through his back, the answer had been to fit a narrower saddle each and every time, the result was more pain and more muscle damage, it was a vicious circle for him. This was my first indication that some of the so called “professionals” haven’t even got it right and didn’t understand their own specialism, the system is broken!!
It was then I thought I needed to educate myself and seek out knowledge so that I can find saddlers to work with who will help both me and my horse and not do further damage.
My holistic vet Chris Day says this on his website:
“Saddling in the UK is generally not serving horses (and therefore riders) well. We are seeing so many cases, in which an apparently medical or chiropractic problem is caused by or aggravated by unsuitable and painful saddling. This can result from poor saddle design, poor saddle construction or bad fitting. It is to the horse’s eternal credit that he tolerates such discomfort and continues to serve us, without violent refusal. This tolerance and stoicism is also, however, the reason for much long-term damage. If the horse refuses to tolerate the pain, he is all-too-often condemned as ‘ungenuine’.”
I recently trained with Dr Kerry Ridgeway who echoes these sentiments and has the following to say on the affects of saddle fit:
“After spending many years specializing in equine performance issues, I, unfortunately found that saddle fit is often the root of problems that can lead to not only performance and behavioral deficits, but also back pain and even unsoundness. My obsession with saddle fitting is that saddles affect muscles. I refer to muscles as the forgotten system in veterinary medicine. Veterinarians involved in performance problems and lameness tend to think in terms of tendons, ligaments and joints. After all, those are what show up as injuries and require treatment. However, the tendons and ligaments respond according to the amount of tension or lack of tension, as well as the stresses put into and onto joints according to one anatomical structure – the muscles – those in action or those failing to be appropriately in action. We all recognize that a very badly fitting saddle can be a torture device for the poor horse. But what many do not recognize is that, what seem to be relatively minor saddle issues gradually affect muscles and their ability to function properly. An insult to one muscle works progressively to spread that insult to another and yet another muscle in a chain reaction. That chain reaction will affect way of going, performance and foot conformation. Carried to its logical conclusion, it will clause firstly, performance deficits and progress subsequently to sub-clinical lameness. Eventually, the problem will lead to outright lameness. At this point, this line of thought might seem exaggerated, but articles will be posted to this website to explain this phenomenon. Lameness that can be attributed to having started with saddle fit include suspensory issues, tendon strains and bows, carpal fractures, degenerative disease of knees (carpal joints), hocks and stifles.”
As you can see the effects of poor saddle fit can be far reaching throughout the entire horse and not always obviously related. Dr Ridgeway has a brilliant DVD available called “Saddle Fitting from A-Z” which provides a wonderful over-view for an owner or trainer needing to know how to perform a basic assessment of a saddle and feel more confident in finding quality professional advice and a saddle that will “fit”.
The horses back is hugely dynamic it is in constant motion designed to move in many directions, the saddle is in its essence a static object placed on this feat of natural engineering and there in lies the problem. It is very important to ensure that any saddle you look at needs to be fitted to the moving horse not just a static horse standing on a hard surface. The horses back and muscles will also change throughout the year and throughout his life. If you change your horses routine, work load, he has time off or the type of work changes even just you having lessons and sitting differently will very likely affect the fit of a previously “fitted” saddle very quickly.
Beyond this the other major consideration that is often overlooked is that the saddle needs to fit you too…If I thought it was hard finding the answers to a saddle that fitted my horse, finding one that fitted me too felt like raising the bar to an almost unobtainable level. However its a really important consideration. If you are sitting badly you will not only not help your horse but potentially do “damage” as your weight is unbalanced and you too can also end up with your own muscular or skeletal problems. Sitting in the “chair-seat” will affect your own posture, your balance and ultimately your ability to perform as a rider. If you are an accomplished rider you will likely try to compensate and begin to hold a huge amount of tension in your own body trying to overcome these problems. A less experienced rider may go with the flow a bit more but wonder why they are unable to hold a steady contact or keep their lower leg still when trotting or feel like they are behind the horses movement. Your saddle may be making you a far worse rider then you actually are, so you too are not fully demonstrating your full potential!!
Extreme saddle fit issues that have been ongoing will result in very obvious and developed symptoms, ideally you want to be picking up the subtle clues at a much earlier stage, long before such extensive damage is done. Examples of such cases could include back problems: spinal and pelvic misalignment, soreness in back muscles, wasted wither muscles, kissing spines; lameness in the limbs: Navicular disease, distal limb degenerative disorders, spavins etc.
Knowing your horse and trusting your instincts is the best place to start. If his behaviour or character changes even slightly or if his performance drops slightly this is when you bring your holistic approach into play and assess everything. Some horses are more tolerant then others I have had both. I prefer my horse who is outspoken and explosively lets me know he’s not happy as I know I have far less chance of doing lasting damage. My first horse who came with saddle fit damage was far more stoic and had as a consequence ended up with extensive muscular damage, in this case our duty of care is all the greater.
The first thing you need to recognise are the behavioral and physical indications that could be being caused by incorrectly fitting saddles, these are vast and varied: inexplicable behavioral changes, objection to being tacked up or mounted (laying ears back, biting or moving away), subtle changes in the “way of going” or action, baulking or refusing transitions, swishing tail, teeth grinding, head shaking, tries to hurry downhill, doesn’t want to move, heavy on the forehand, stumbles, can’t round back and hold an outline, “humping” or “cold backed”, moving to the extreme of bucking or rearing, refusing to jump, or any behaviour that worsens the longer you ride.
The key is picking up on the clues that may be easily passed over and this can be helped by learning enough that you are able to assess your own tack far more regularly then you would want to call out a “professional” to do it for you.
Chris Day gives the following advice on his website:
“We have a very simple approach to saddling assessment: We check tree width, panel shape, flocking workmanship, basic design, symmetry, gullet width and where the saddle bears on the horse. Only then would we research into deeper issues. These few points are the basic essentials, which are bound to cause problems if not correct. As an integral part of our work, we ensure that a rider can understand the basic points about comfortable saddling. We believe that, whatever the theoretical merits or demerits of a certain saddle or saddling method and whatever theory a rider, saddler or vet may propose, the horse should be the final arbiter. We are able to demonstrate how a horse will communicate his opinion, which should be trusted above all others.
Common saddling faults that we find are are in the areas of: damage, tree size, tree shape, build quality, stirrup bars, girth straps, panelling design and alignment, flocking, symmetry and girth design. Saddles that bounce, slip or twist in use are often poorly-fitted (or there may be a definable back problem, that needs chiropractic manipulation). Such problems should not be left unattended, since either will cause pain and discomfort.
If a saddle is not properly fitted, is badly constructed or is frankly worn out, using numnahs, pads, air cushions etc. does not answer the problem. A bad saddle is a bad saddle.”
I have already recommended Dr Ridgeways Dvd’s but another useful resource is the saddlefit4life website and the youtube videos from Jochen Schleese although they often relate to his specific saddles (& I am not suggesting they are the solution and you should buy one) they do cover how they access a saddles fit and they are very thorough in those things they assess. They have 9 videos called saddle fitting in 9 steps, below I have included the first which discusses “balance”.
Saddle fit of course links back again to horsemanship and correct training. If you are undertaking any rehabilitation type work it is highly likely that your horses shape will change dramatically over that time and so any saddle that might have fitted at the beginning is highly unlikely to fit after this work has been carried out. Klaus Schoneich states in his book that when horses come to his centre, only after he has worked to straighten them will he then look to fit a saddle & invariably finds that a new saddle is required for the horse. You may also find that if you are having specific saddle issues, it slipping to one side or any assymetric muscle development that these can be addressed and helped through straightening and correct “work”.
I think somewhere we often fall down is with horses that are being started who are put in “any old saddle” as they are known to change shape and it is too expensive to be having saddles fitted and buying new saddles with the regular frequency that is required. The sad fact is that an ill fitting saddle at this stage of the horses life can do as much damage if not more as the horse learns to compensate to discomfort and potentially pain from the outset, setting up structural & behavioral problems before he has even had a chance to start his career.
Behavioral and physical problems aren’t just associated with incorrect fitting saddles although generally this is the main area people will assess first. Any equipment that you use that in incorrectly fitted or adjusted can cause damage to the soft tissues and nerves and result in problems.
The same care should be given to fitting bridles and bits, even boots and rugs can do damage to a horse if incorrectly fitted.
Bits and nosebands in particular are a mine-field all of their own. Quite often affected by what is in fashion and vogue we often forget to ask the simple question of why we are using that piece of equipment, what was it actually designed for? What are we hoping to achieve by using it?
Horses mouths are as individual as horses backs and different horses will like different things. Its worth having a good look with your dentist to understand if your horse has any particular features you should take into consideration such as a particular large or thick tongue, the shape of his pallet, positioning of the teeth, etc that might influence your choice of bit, if you choose to use one.
If we’re changing tack simply for more “control” or extra “brakes” or to fix a problem, should we not really be going back to our holistic approach and wondering if we have explored all the options?
First and foremost assessing out training methods and abilities is there something missing in our foundation training. Then consider any physical issues or discomfort, also take time to look at nutrition: Is there too much “heating” food in the diet or perhaps a deficiency in magnesium that often results in unpredictable behaviour and anxiety and “jumpyness” in horses. Once we’ve accessed all these areas and corrected anything at this level then would be the time to make tack adjustments if needed.
Thats not to say you never change tack or equipment just that it should be done with thought and consideration.
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